Vegetarians are usually advised to eat slightly more protein than omnivores – this is to ‘make up’ for the slightly different makeup of the amino acids in the foods that are eaten – and also because of slight differences in digestibility between animal and plant proteins.
In truth, though, vegetarian diets can offer up plenty of protein, as long as they’re well-balanced. Let’s talk about the options.
Amino Acids: Essential and Non-essential
The proteins that you eat are made up of small building blocks, called amino acids. Some of them are termed “essential” – which means that you need to get them from food because your body can’t make them. Other amino acids are considered nonessential, since your body has the ability to manufacture them. And your body uses both types to assemble the various proteins in your body – like muscle cells, and enzymes and hormones.
All protein foods – both plant and animal – supply amino acids to the body. The key difference is that animal foods contain all the essential amino acids, while most plant proteins (with the exception of soy) lack one or more essential amino acids. But since different plant foods have their own unique amino acid makeup, it’s not hard to get all the essentials on a vegetarian diet as long as you eat a variety of foods.
Protein Sources for Vegetarians
Lacto-ovo vegetarians can easily get good quality protein since their diet includes eggs and dairy products. Vegans, who stay away from all animal foods and animal products, can look to foods like beans, lentils and tofu for protein. But either way, it’s good to know that you can also pick up a fair amount of protein along the way from vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Again, eating a wide-ranging, well-balanced diet is key to meeting your needs.
Calorie Cost of Vegetarian Protein
Some of my vegetarian clients worry that the calorie cost of getting enough protein is too high. But a lot depends on what foods you choose. For those who are watching calories, I steer them towards the foods that provide the most protein for the fewest calories. If they’re willing to eat eggs and dairy products, this is relatively easy – non-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese as well as whole eggs and egg whites can make sizeable protein contributions for relatively few calories.
For vegans, plant proteins will be their staples (foods like beans, seitan tofu, and tempeh) and I encourage liberal use of protein powders made from plants such as soy, pea, rice or hemp. One of great features of plant protein powders is that they offer a lot of protein for relatively few calories, and they’re easy to add to foods such as protein shakes, oatmeal and soups to boost protein – and, I can individually tailor how much protein powder each client should use, depending on their individual needs.
To help you out, here’s a list of some common vegetarian proteins, and the amount of protein they offer.
Grams of protein
(gluten, or ‘wheat meat’)
|3 ounces/100 g||24||130|
|Protein Powder, Plain||4 tablespoons||20||80|
|Tempeh||3 ounces/100 g||18||200|
|Tofu, firm||3 ounces/100 g||13||125|
|Edamame soybeans||1/2 cup beans||11||125|
non-fat, Greek Style
|Milk, non-fat||1 cup||10 (varies)||90|
|Cottage cheese, nonfat||1/2 cup||10||80|
|Black beans||1/2 cup||8||110|
|Egg whites||2 whites||7||35|
|Soy milk, plain||1 cup||6||90|
|Kidney beans||1/2 cup||6||100|
|Spinach, cooked||1 cup||5||40|
|Quinoa||1/2 cup cooked||4||110|
|Broccoli, chopped||1 cup cooked||4||55|
|Brown rice||1/2 cup cooked||3||110|
cooked in water
|1 cup cooked||3||85|
|Whole grain bread||1 slice||3-5||100|
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
Herbalife offers protein-based food products.